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What Are You Reading? Perkinsville Resident, 95, Says ‘There’s So Much to Learn’

  • Linn Harwell in Perkinsville Vt., on July 12, 2018. Harwell is a pioneer in family planning and reproductive rights. Harwell has recently moved from New London, N.H to live with her daughter. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Linn Harwell in Perkinsville Vt., on July 12, 2018. Harwell is a pioneer in family planning and reproductive rights. Harwell has recently moved from New London, N.H to live with her daughter. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, August 09, 2018

When I first started asking Upper Valley residents this past winter about what they were reading, I was counting on Valley News readers of this feature to recommend friends, neighbors and family who especially cherish their time with the written word.

In early May, Linn Harwell cut out the middleman. The Perkinsville resident had just read my interview with Tunbridge teenager Wright Frost, a devotee of mountaineering expeditions, and called me up.

“I’m knee deep in Is God a Mathematician?,” Harwell said that day of physicist Mario Livio’s 2009 exploration of the lives and theories of the discipline’s exceptional practitioners. “It’s quite readable for somebody who has a minor interest in mathematics.”

Now 95, Harwell in recent years has added history and biography to the many interests that consumed her earlier adulthood, including more than 40 years of advocating for reproductive freedom, population control and other progressive causes.

“There’s so much to learn,” she said during a conversation at her 200-year-old home in July. “I have more time to read now.”

In May, Harwell was just diving into A Distant Mirror, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman’s seminal examination of Europe’s calamitous 14th century, which included plagues and wars as well as cultural and architectural advancements.

“This is what my kids gave me to keep me busy,” Harwell said with a laugh that day, before adding that she was now working her way through a modern translation of The Book of Hours, the Christian devotional tome from the Middle Ages that she was reading as much for the pictures — “there are the most beautiful paintings of scenes of knights and leaders of the time and where they were” — as for the text that monks wrote by hand.

Harwell also sang the praises of Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer’s recent The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government.

“Any thoughtful American with teenage kids should have them read The Gardens of Democracy,” she said. “They need to see what they’re missing in civics classes at school.”

As Linn Duvall, growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, she paid close attention both to civics and to literature. At Pittsburgh’s Peabody High School — which she proudly noted now houses the Barack Obama Academy for International Studies — she presided over the French Club and Leaders Club and sang as lead soprano in the chorus. She made her own clothes and still found time to read books like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables — in French.

Shortly before her graduation, aspiring chemical engineer Howard “Hod” Harwell, a recent graduate of Yale, proposed. And while Linn Duvall had a scholarship offer at Vassar, “I chose Hod instead,” she recalled during our conversation in Perkinsville.

Next thing she knew, they had two sons and two daughters. Still haunted by the death of her mother, at age 34 after ending her eighth pregnancy with an illegal abortion, Harwell visited a Planned Parenthood clinic in Pittsburgh to learn about her options for birth control.

Her mother’s death continued to weigh on Harwell well into adulthood. In 1958, not long after the Harwells had moved to New Canaan, Conn., Linn accepted an invitation to volunteer for the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut. Over the subsequent eight years, the case of Griswold vs. Connecticut moved through the courts, concluding with a 1965 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized the right to promote and receive birth control.

Estelle Griswold, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of Planned Parenthood, had trained Harwell and dozens of other volunteers to help families in poor neighborhoods in southern Connecticut explore their family-planning options. The work launched Harwell on a career of advocacy that included volunteering to help poor women in Philadelphia, overseas trips to United Nations conferences on women’s rights and collaborating with the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union to form the Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project.

After Linn and Hod retired to New London in the early 1990s, Harwell continued to work for progressive causes and to write letters and op-eds, and stayed active for several years following Howard’s death in 2011.

More recently, she’s been making up for reading time lost to her activism. In addition to reading several daily newspapers, she’s lately been wading through Dostoevsky’s historical novel Crime and Punishment.

“I’m not getting into this as easily as (daughter Mareen Harwell) did when she read it as a teenager during a summer vacation in her teens,” Harwell said in July. “But I’ve learned so much about Russia.”

Meanwhile, she was devouring biographer Walter Isaacson’s ambitious Leonardo da Vinci, which is inspiring her to embark on putting her own story on the page.

“When they called me back to my old school as ‘the student who had done the most for the school,’ I told the people there, when talking about when my mother died, ‘I had no tears.’ That’ll be the title of the book: I Had No Time for Tears.”

To recommend Upper Valley residents, from any walk of life and line of work, for an interview about what they’re reading, contact David Corriveau at dcorriveau@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.